two boys playing football

Allergic reactions, exclusion and bullying – the findings of our parent survey about how schools manage food allergies make tough reading.

BBC Breakfast studio and guests

The Survey

In January 2024, The Allergy Team asked parents and carers about their children’s experience of being at school with allergies.

363 families responded, revealing:

as seen on the bbc

You might have seen us talking about this on BBC Breakfast, and discussing how schools adopting the Schools Allergy Code and joining the Schools Allergy Register can give pupils, parents and staff greater confidence.

%

pupils had experienced and allergic reaction or "near miss" at school

%

said their child had be excluded from an activity because of their allergies

%

would have greater confidence if school was on schools allergy register

The families

363 parents of children with food allergies completed the survey. Their children were between 0-16 years of age but 56% of respondents had children aged 4-6 years. This suggests that many children are experiencing allergic reactions in their first couple of years at school.

The vast majority (293) of respondents said their child attended a state primary school.

The most common allergen the respondents told us about was milk or a combination of milk and other allergens.

66% respondents said their child had been prescribed with adrenaline pens eg. EpiPen or Jext.

Allergic reactions

  • 38% respondents said their child has had an allergic reaction in school
  • 12% had emergency services called
  • 39% of families had experienced a “near miss” 

This is how parents and carers described some of these incidents:

“In reception they gave him cow’s milk once by mistake (he’s allergic to dairy). They had to do an EpiPen, call an ambulance, go to A&E with him. They have been better since but have not been at all supportive in helping with the psychological issues he has developed.”

“My son in his first school nursery was in critical care for 72 hours due to anaphylactic shock. His second school, although warned and trained, made the same mistake… Unfortunately schools only take [allergies] seriously after [an] incident.”

“It was near home time and a staff member ran across the playground when she saw me and exclaimed ‘quick, he is having an allergic reaction and we don’t know what to do!’

Missing out

46% said their child had been left out of an activity because of their allergies. Families told us:

“In Forest School children had hot chocolate and cakes and he had to have water and raisins.”

 “The school sometimes provides bananas for play time, and my son had a banana allergy. They would send my son to a room with a friend of his choice to play, while the other kids played outside.”

 “[The class] made pancakes and he had to sit and draw instead in corner of room.”

Bullying because of allergies

Parents told us some distressing stories about their children being bullied and teased due to their allergies. These included children being threatened with their allergens, one parent told us “A child licked my child because they had eaten peanut butter and wanted to see a reaction.”

School mealtimes

50% (181) of respondents said their child had a packed lunch, 135 (75%) of these families told us this was due to their child’s allergies. Only 12% said the decision to have packed lunch had nothing to do with food allergies.

A sample of answers:

“We felt a packed lunch was the safest option and [gave] peace of mind for us, our daughter and her teachers. It makes me sad and frustrated though that we missed out on free school meals for the whole of KS1, especially as free from foods are so expensive. It’s also time-consuming shopping and making packed lunches!”

“I would love her to have school dinners and we did trial this at the beginning of her time there, but there was an incident where the external company put one of her allergens in her food. Luckily the school staff noticed and didn’t serve it but obviously this upset my daughter and caused me concern.”

 “[My son’s] only option was jacket potato and beans 5 days a week – surely against some kind of healthy eating rule.”

How allergies impact choice of school

104 respondents said food allergy management was the most important factor they considered when choosing their child’s school (88 of these were the parents of children who had been prescribed with adrenaline pens).

Some found it hard to find out information about how allergies were managed at their child’s school, either by asking or looking online. 39% didn’t know if school had an allergy or anaphylaxis policy.

This is what some parents told us about the role their child’s allergies played in choosing a school:

“My child has had two anaphylactic shocks, and his allergies are a very serious matter to us. We needed to feel comfortable leaving him there and trust them with our child’s life.”

“I think I also naively presumed that all schools would take allergies seriously and have policies and systems in place to ensure children with allergies were safe and included. It became apparent quite quickly once my daughter was offered a place and I tried to engage with the school on this matter more formally, that it was not going to be quite as I had expected.”

Moving to secondary school next year and this [allergies] is the biggest deciding factor. I have to know my child is safe when away from me and away from home. I have to know the school takes allergies safely and provides facilities that are safe but allow for the growth of independence in an inclusive way.”

Confidence in school staff and procedures

 Confidence in schools to manage allergies varied. Many parents told us there were one or two staff members on whom they felt they could rely, but others who didn’t seem to “get it”. There was a sense of frustration that allergy understanding is not more universal or standardised.

Impact of the Schools Allergy Register

84% respondents said they would have greater confidence in a school if it was on the Schools Allergy Register, 14% said it might do.

73% said it would impact their decision to apply for a school, with a further 22% saying it might.

Families told us:

“The most important thing for us is knowing that our children are safe in school. A school that follows the Allergy Code and has been assessed by the Allergy Team would signal to us that they are following best practice and would keep our children safe and included.”

“Trust is important. Proactively signing yourself up for this would show willingness to improve and confidence in ability.”

“Being validated by The Allergy Team it shows they’re not just ‘talking the talk’ and telling you the things you want to hear, when in practice they do things very differently.”